Mixed results for conservation efforts leave species dying


Two snapshots of the Earth's biodiversity released this week highlight both good and bad news for the planet — great strides have been made to protect the environment, but hundreds of threatened species have been left out in the cold.

The United Nations Environment Programme and the World Conservation Union together report that protected areas have expanded to nearly 19 million square kilometres, an area larger than China and covering 12% of the planet's land surface. This is a huge improvement on the first Parks Congress in 1962, when just 2.4 million square kilometres were protected.

But many of the sites are too small or isolated to be effective in conserving species, says a second study by Conservation International of Washington DC. It shows that more than 700 birds, mammals and amphibians on the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species remain completely unprotected. The situation may be even worse in the oceans. Both results were presented at the 5th World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa.

Prizes aplenty honour genetics and astronomy

New York

Two top science prizes, behind only the Nobels in prestige, were awarded last week: the Laskers, for medical research, and the Balzans, this year devoted to infrared astronomy and evolutionary genetics.

The Lasker Award for basic research went to Robert Roeder of Rockefeller University in New York, who reproduced the transcription of DNA into RNA in a test tube and opened up the process for study. The clinical award was shared by Marc Feldmann and Ravinder Maini of Imperial College London, for their discovery of a treatment for autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. An award for public service went to the paralysed actor Christopher Reeve for his advocacy of medical research.

One Balzan Prize went to Reinhard Genzel, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, for his development of telescope instrumentation and other research, some of which provided evidence for a massive black hole at the centre of our Galaxy. A second prize went to Wen-Hsiung Li of the University of Chicago, for his use of molecular clocks in studying evolution.

Bush challenged over privatization plans

San Diego

The Bush administration's plan to contract out many federal jobs — including thousands of science positions — has hit a major roadblock.

On 9 September, the House of Representatives approved a bill amendment that prevents the implementation of new contracting rules that would have allowed federal jobs to be switched to private firms more easily. The legislation will now be debated in the Senate.

The amendment was championed by Chris Van Hollen (Democrat, Maryland), who represents a district that includes the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Van Hollen and others fear that contracting out scientists could disrupt research and prevent the recruitment of good scientists to agencies such as the NIH, and would save the government little or no money.

Bush administration officials say that privatization is needed to improve efficiency. President George W. Bush has threatened to veto any legislation that thwarts the move.

Merger provides stronger voice for British biologists


Biologists in Britain are to be united under an umbrella organization launched on 15 September. The Biosciences Federation will provide its members with a single coherent voice when talking to the government and the public.

The federation is a union of two existing bodies — the Institute of Biology and the UK Life Science Committee. That gives it some 60,000 members and a broad scope, covering everything from physiology and neuroscience to microbiology and ecology. It has contributed to several reports already, including studies on the use of genetically modified crops in developing countries and the detection and dismantling of biological weapons. The organization will be similar in size and function to the US Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, although that is more focused on biomedical issues.

Colin Blakemore, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, will chair the new body initially, but plans to vacate the role when he takes over as head of Britain's Medical Research Council in October.

Heated response thaws Austria's frozen budget


Scientists in Austria won a small but important victory last week, securing themselves at least some money for basic research this year.

The Austrian Science Fund (FWF), the country's only granting agency for basic research, ran into financial trouble this summer. In June, the fund received only 80% of its budget, freezing some €30 million (US$34 million) and putting 86 previously approved projects on ice.

Austrian scientists have since been up in arms. On 11 September they presented the government with a petition signed by more than 1,500 academics, protesting against the move. Hubert Gorbach, the minister responsible for research, has now promised that half of the missing money will be provided immediately. The other half should be available by the end of the year.

Oops! Sorry, we've dropped your satellite



A $239-million US weather satellite was dropped onto its side at the Lockheed Martin plant in Sunnyvale, California, last week, doing an unknown amount of damage to the craft. The NOAA-N Prime spacecraft, which was scheduled to go into polar orbit in 2008, was being shifted from a vertical to a horizontal position when it slipped from the cart and crashed to the floor. An initial assessment revealed that 24 bolts were missing from the cart — it is thought that engineers took them out a few days earlier without properly recording their actions. Both Lockheed and a government team from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Air Force have begun investigations.